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Rockets-Warriors: Hope at Last?

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Missed free throws in the final two minutes.

Killer turnovers down the stretch.

We’d seen this play so many times before. In fact, it seemed to have claimed permanent residence status at the Toyota Center over the past six weeks.

But for one night at least, the Rockets flipped the script on us. This time, they were the ones in control and executing during winning time, leaving Golden State to agonize over its own myriad of missed opportunities.

Give the Rockets credit. The table was set for an epic collapse that may have soured fans on this underachieving team for good. When Baron Davis drained a three with 2:11 remaining—giving the Warriors their first lead of the game, and completing their comeback from a 21 point deficit—you didn’t hear gasps of horror so much as you heard an entire fan base muttering “Here we go again.”

But instead of coming apart at the seams, the Rockets came together. There were heroes aplenty on this night which ended with a 111-107 Houston victory. But one man towered above the rest, showing why he is this team’s MVP, and—perhaps more important—its leader.

“We had Yao Ming and that was the difference,” said Shane Battier after the game. “The big fella was awesome tonight. He really put us on his back tonight and was aggressive and just played a phenomenal game.”

Yes, Yao’s 36 points, 19 boards, and a plethora of clutch free throws for a club which typically films horror movies at the charity stripe were phenomenal; especially considering his recent struggles against Golden State’s helter skelter style. He wasn’t perfect—a game-high 7 turnovers, double his season average—but he was in the final two minutes, nailing 6 freebies and a jumper.

Then there’s the much-maligned Rafer Alston. Perhaps buoyed by a first quarter jawing match with Golden State’s Baron Davis, Rafer responded by nearly posting a triple double; continuing his trend of strong play when Tracy McGrady (out with the flu) is unavailable for duty.

“I’m not gonna back down from nobody out there,” Alston said, “no matter how big they are. I know [Davis] loves to compete, that’s why he’s an All-Star caliber point guard. But I know my team needs me out there; not to score much, but just to run the team. They need me out there focusing and playing with a lot of confidence.”

Know this about Alston: Despite his shortcomings, confidence is not something he lacks. This is a man who many figured would be hard-pressed to make the Rockets regular season roster considering his turbulent summer and the team’s glut at the point guard position. But that didn’t stop him from pleasantly expressing defiance during the team’s media day back in October. He said he wasn’t going anywhere and that he was ready to prove he deserved the starting job. Nearly four months later, he’s repeatedly shown—like it or not, Rockets fans—that he is indeed the club’s best option at the point.

Of course, what matters most for Rafer and the Rockets is how they manage to follow up this encouraging performance. Alston isn’t going to suddenly morph into a Jason Kidd triple double machine, and Houston won’t regularly hit more than 80 percent of its free throws.

Still, it’s funny how a big win over a quality opponent can alter one’s outlook. Just two days ago, I pondered the question of hope regarding this Rockets team. If you’re a half-full person, there’s plenty to be had.

For starters, Houston just put the wraps on a 10-3 run to close out the month of January. It may be the least inspiring 10-3 stretch in the history of the NBA, but wins are wins. And February’s schedule sets up nicely for continued success: 8 of the Rockets 13 opponents sport below .500 records. If Houston is truly serious about making a playoff push, it has to start now.

“We feel we need to make a strong push before the All-Star break,” Battier says. “After the All-Star break, everyone gets real serious about playing and the real fun begins.”

It’s no secret that the Rockets have spent the entire season to date searching for an identity. They’ve been a team in transition from the outset. More often than not, they have maneuvered through their schedule with the grace and dexterity of a teenager learning to drive a standard transmission automobile. Do fans dare hope that this time the team has turned the corner for good?

“We’re still working,” says Battier. “I said that at the start of the year. It may not be ‘til the last game of the year before we figure out who we are. But along the way, we’re finding that we have some great components. We’re finding the explosiveness of Aaron Brooks, the tenacity of Carl Landry, the passion of Luis Scola, and the shooting of Steve Novak. Those are things we didn’t really know about before the season, and hopefully we can continue to build upon those things and make this team better.”

For what it’s worth, there are people outside the Rockets locker room who believe in this club. In his latest power rankings, Sports Illustrated’s Marty Burns somewhat inexplicably lists Houston at No. 6. And for those wary of human fallibility, John Hollinger’s computer says the Rockets are a top ten team. Do they see something that we—blinded by unrealistic preseason expectations—have somehow missed?

“When we play together and have team efforts like we did tonight, we’re a tough team to beat,” philosophizes Battier. “When we try to do it 1-on-1, that’s when we struggle. We realize our strength is the ability to play together.”

So you think that message has finally sunk in?

“Sometimes I think we forget it... But hopefully after this stretch we realize that when we are together, and we play as a unit both offensively and defensively, we’re pretty darn good.”

How good? Right now there’s just no way to know. But with that sweet February set-up, we should have the answer soon enough. - Jason Friedman

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